As can so often happen, circumstances had pulled Diane Meyer away from a leading love in her life.

“I wanted to get my spark back,” Diane, 74, said. “I wanted to get back to doing artwork.”

She would find that inspiration in an unexpected place.

After a breast cancer diagnosis in December 2017, Diane visited the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion for treatment. A brochure about the Expressive Arts program caught her eye.

Joining others in the airy, well-lit pavilion on that first visit, Diane put brush to canvas for the first time in a few years.

She started painting wild, wavy lines.

Blue. White. Blue. White.

“All that angst that you have. Art is a great way to express your feelings and to help you get calm,” Diane said. “The first painting I did really looked like turmoil.”

As she told RaNae Couture, the program’s director: “This is what I’m feeling.”

‘It helped me heal’

Since that initial visit in February 2018, Diane and her husband, Carl, have attended practically every week.

“It helped me heal,” Diane said. “Not just physically but emotionally.”

“Imagination: Hand to Paper,” a work that reflects her cancer journey and her passion for art, won a 2022 Juror’s Choice award from Artists Creating Together, a nonprofit that pairs artists with people with disabilities.

It will be featured in ArtPrize at the Amway Grand this fall.

“She’s just blossomed in her artwork and her confidence,” said Couture, an artist and facilitator of the expressive arts.

Couture, who’s quick to greet participants with a warm smile, encouragement and materials, also works with patients at the Spectrum Health rehab and nursing facilities on Fuller Avenue and Kalamazoo Avenue.

For those battling cancer, art can aid in healing, Couture said.

“They may be coming in for their first appointment or their first treatment,” she said. “You can see (the stress) in their face. You can hear it in their voice. But once they start painting, within an hour they are calmer.”

When people tap into their creativity, they can enter what Couture calls a “flow state.” It unleashes brain chemicals that reduce stress and anxiety.

“In essence, that bolsters your immune system,” Couture said.

Love and creativity

Born in Philadelphia, Diane always loved art. But she never considered herself an artist.

She met Carl during an impromptu visit to the Pocono Mountains with her sister. The two lounged on the beach listening to “Red Sails in the Sunlight” on her transistor radio.

“And here comes this canoe with a sail, and that was Carl,” she recalled. “He literally sailed into my life. He came ashore and we connected immediately.”

Carl was on leave from Kincheloe Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula. The two would marry and settle in Sault Ste. Marie in 1974.

Diane “dabbled in art” over the years—painting watercolors, taking a pottery class with Carl, creating a papier mache sandhill crane and barn owl using natural materials.

Later, she would make baskets, sell handmade cards and write poetry.

She balanced her love of art with other loves: raising their son, Dustin, and delving into environmental work with Sierra Club. She helped Carl run their snowplowing and landscaping business.

In recent years, however, life stresses—a home renovation, a move to Grand Rapids, and the death of her mother—had drained away Diane’s creativity.

‘Inspiration sparkled again’

The breast cancer diagnosis came out of the blue, Diane explained in a biography for Artists Creating Together.

“Surprisingly that is what opened me to make art once more,” she wrote.

“Inspiration sparkled again. Here was a chance to experience some forms of art new to me, like using acrylics and doing abstract art, at the same time helping me cope with the stresses and providing me with joyful camaraderie and support from new friends for the last four years.”

Diane began attending the Expressive Arts program in early February 2019. She had surgery on Feb. 16 and began attending again in early March, continuing as she underwent radiation in May. It proved a lifeline.

“You don’t know what is coming, you don’t know where it’s going, you don’t know what to expect,” she said. “So this has been a wonderful thing for me.

“It’s a time to focus on something else. Once you get into the art, everything else goes away.”

She has completed her treatment, but she and Carl continue to attend the art program.

“Seeing my grandchildren and coming here are the highlights of my week,” Diane said.

The program benefits caregivers, too, Couture said.

“It gives them something else to talk about besides the medical,” she said. “They can find a little relief.”

Art heals

On a recent Tuesday morning, piano music played in the background as patients and caregivers worked at easels in the lobby. Colorful paints and pallets lined a portable shelving unit.

Many people will show up and say, “I’m not an artist.” That’s when Couture gently encourages them to give it a try.

“We’re all creative individuals,” Couture said. “That is my belief.”

Time and again, she has seen how art can heal—not only for patients battling cancer, but those facing brain injuries or serious illness, or those in hospice.

“Sometimes when they come in, they’ve lost so much, they’ve forgotten who they are,” Couture said. “The art fills them up. Through painting and art activities, they see themselves again.”